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Two weeks after Morning Rounds, Late July 75AD

Didia stifled a yawn and glanced round in the early morning light. Dawn had come and gone only a few moments ago and the Aventine was still sleeping which...for the Hill, was a mercy. Even up at the top surrounded by the domi of the rich and notable, the Hill still held on its rougher edge, judging by some of the fabulous and explicit graffiti drawings scattered around. 

She sent word to Rufus to meet her at the corner of a bakers and a yellow-walled domus and she hoped he'd find it. She clasped two sweet buns in her hand, pilfered from the baker (now very aged) that still left them to cool! The aroma brought back so many memories it was surreal; carefree days when her parents were working and she could wander to and fro as she pleased. She'd had to beg and barter to get this morning off, and she only had until sundown when she'd need to go and help prepare orders for tomorrow in the warehouse districts. Maybe she could convince Rufus to come and lend a hand; the man was a sweetheart, she supposed he'd do it regardless. 

She leaned against the wall of the domus, ignoring the suspicious glances the porter cast her. She didn't look much like she belonged in this quarter with her simple tunica and hair loosely tied up with a linen strip. Still, they were going exploring so she didn't mind much. A voice startled her to her left and in her surprise, she dropped one of the buns loosely gripped in her left hand. "Shit! Shit!" She stepped back and grimaced up at Rufus, before trusting out the surviving bun in his direction. "Here...you take this one, even though you're late, tsk." She chuckled, showing she wasn't actually irritated but couldn't help a forlorn glance down at her bun, already being used for a feast for the ants on the cobbles.

 

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It had taken Rufus a little while to find the rendezvous point, not being familiar with the Aventine, but he made it in the end. Didia Nonia was, naturally, there first, and he hoped that she hadn't been waiting for too long. 

"Morning!" 

She jumped and dropped something, turning to see him even as she swore at whatever it was that had ended up in the gutter.

It was a bun, and she held its twin out to him, muttering about his tardiness.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I don't know this area very well, it took me longer to find you than I'd hoped."

He took the offered bun, and carefully pulled it into two, offering her the larger piece. "It's only fair," he said. "I made you drop yours, you shouldn't have to go without."

Not for a slave, he added mentally, although he was determined to enjoy his single day of freedom as much as possible - it wasn't something that Octavius Flavius Alexander was generally in the habit of granting his slaves, after all.

 

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Didia took part of the bun he offered, but it ripped it in two before she was left with a quarter, handing the rest back to him. "You're forgiven I suppose." She grinned, "And you have that, I've had my fill of all the best Hispanian produce, perk of the job." She gestured with her head and pushed off from the wall, ambling at a gentle pace up the hill. 

"So," She smiled up at him as they walked, "I was thinking - breakfast, which we've had, a nice explore around a potentially empty, potentially occupied domus..." She chuckled, "And then dinner at the popina next to mine, we get a discount and they have the best stew you'll have this side of the Tiber." She nudged him as they walked slowly, "Sound good? Unless you have more exiting things you wanted to do on your day off?" He might have a hundred other friends just like her, who he'd rather socialise with. The thought miffed  her a bit but she tried not to let it eat at her. 

"It's not much farther, if I remember...and that's an if because it's been years...about five minutes." 

 

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It was a moment before Rufus could speak without his mouth full. "I've had breakfast, you've had a mouthful of bun if that. At least let me replace the one you dropped, as an apology and thanks for getting me a day off," he said. A single bun wouldn't cost very much and he was more than happy to pay out that small sum.

"I don't have anywhere else to be today," he added, hastening to reassure her. "I honestly don't know much of the city at all, mostly just the bits my master visits."

It would be interesting to explore an empty domus - he could explain the rooms to her and, well, it wasn't as though he often had a day to spend exactly as he wanted. 

"That sounds very good," he told her, with a shy smile.

 

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"No! No, I won't hear of it!" She grinned and reached into the small bag she had at her hip, fishing out an apple to waggle in front of his face as if she had proof she had plenty of sustenance. She dropped the apple back in the bag and continued to walk gently up the hill, having to hitch up the hem of her tunica to keep it from trailing. 

"Well then, in that case, I'm adding a couple of stops to our itinerary. A few surprises, but all will be revealed lovely Rufus." 

She had a few ideas, but she'd see how Rufus got on with the domus. If he wanted to see the city, she'd show him the city - and not just the dull bits that tourists from the provinces saw when they came to visit their well-off relatives. The proper Rome! She was musing to herself and returned his shy smile with a broad grin of her own until they drew up to a side street. There were empty plots and a few trees, sprouting through the cracks in the pavement. One such tree, which looked old to to her eye, was leaning against the door - barred and locked - of a faded red domus. 

"This is it!" She said with a satisfied smile, and jerked her head for Rufus to follow her. She made her way quietly and quickly around the back wall, trailing her fingers over the crumbling plaster. She found what she was looking for with a satisfied gasp. Next to the slave's door - bolted and boarded shut - and a bit higher up was a window. "Here, hold this." She said and passed him her bag, rummaging in it until she found a knife. She obviously wasn't supposed to be carrying it given the city rules but...needs must. Cautiously, she reached up on the tips of her toes until she could pry off a nail - the same nail she had pried off when she was a teenager until the board covering the window clattered down to the floor. 

"Give me a leg up?" She asked. Rufus could probably hoist himself through but at her diminutive size? Not a chance. 

 

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"Well, maybe I'd like to replace it, just as an apology," Rufus retorted with a grin. It wouldn't cost very much and he did rather want to be able to treat Didia, despite their respective ranks. She deserved it, for getting him out of work - or rather, giving him an excuse to ask for a day. He'd been more than a little astonished that's he'd actually got it. Slaves didn't, as a general rule, get any time to themselves except on certain festival days like Nemoralia or Saturnalia.

It was easy to keep pace with her, although Rufus had to firmly squash the part of his brain that was trying to insist he should walk behind Didia. He hadn't known all that long, not really, but he had known her long enough to know that she would be deeply uncomfortable if he was behind her - not because she didn't trust him but because she didn't treat him like a slave and didn't want that sort of subservience - which was highly unusual and very nice.

"'Lovely'?" he asked. "I'm not sure I deserve that description, Didia Nonia."

It wasn't at all long before they arrived at their destination, and Didia passed him her bag before rummaging in it for something. She pulled out a knife and fiddled with something at the lower corner of a warped and faded board that covered a window by the slave's door (obviously unused, judging by the tree growing up at an angle in front of it.

He grinned at her and set his back against the wall below the window, cupping his hands to receive her foot so that he could hoist her up - it wouldn't be too difficult to pull himself up after her.

"Here, it'll be easier for you to take this now," he said once she'd wriggled through, and he passed her bag back to her.

 

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"Tsk! Of course you're lovely!" She grinned at him with her wide, dimpled grin. She used the epithet for most of her friends, but it was sweet that he didn't seem to appreciate that. She made a mental note to be more complimentary to him, he evidently needed it. 

As she was hoisted through the window, she clattered down the other side, coughing into the thick layer of dust. She coughed again to clear her lungs and crabbed her bag, holding out her hand in case Rufus needed help down the other side. She'd landed on a rickety table, fortunately placed, but he might be able to make the jump straight to the floor with his height. She blinked into the darkness. There were odd shafts of light from the cracks in the boards that sealed up the windows, but besides that the space was dark, still. They had landed in the kitchens where it was almost as if time stood still; bowls were still scattered around the place, although the food contained within had long been eaten by hungry mice and such. 

She grinned up at Rufus. "So...Welcome to your house, dominus." She waggled her eyebrows, hoping he'd play along. "Where to first?" It'd been years since she'd been here, and longer still since she'd seen into the fancy side of the domi that she delivered  to. She was itching to explore...and hoping that not all the ladies clothes had been moth-eaten. She could use a new palla.

 

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Rufus scrambled after her, blinking in the dusty twilight as he landed on the floor, sending up billows of fine dust. He'd have to splash his hands and head under a fountain before returning home, and apologise for the state of his tunic, although dust should just rinse out (he hoped, knowing absolutely zero about the laundering of clothes).

"I thought it was welcome to yours, domina," he said with a grin, speaking somewhat softer than usual. "I mean, you've been here before." He looked around; it seemed (apart from the lack of food) to have simply been shut up and abandoned in the middle of the day, with nothing packed to be taken - at least, everything around him seemed to be where he would expect, in a house that was still inhabited.

"So... this is the kitchen. You've seen enough of those in your time, I'm sure. What about the rest of the house - you can't be the mistress of the house in the kitchens, after all."

He had never known a mistress to trouble herself with what might be taking place in the kitchen; if she wanted to talk to the cook, or to any other slave, she summoned them to her presence, she would not seek them out herself.

 

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Didia laughed and arched a brow, "Fine, fine, welcome to my house, noble sir." She winked at him ad nodded. "Lets go and explore." She tugged on his tunic to duck through the doorway leading into the main portion of the house. She blinked, the light from the peristyle filtering through. "Is this like your domus?" She peered up at him, "Or your dominus', of course." She tutted, forgetting herself. 

She ran her fingers across the fresco on the wall - something highbrow that Didia didn't understand. One of the seasons perhaps? Or the Greek myths? Whatever it was, she didn't understand it but the colours hadn't faded in the intervening years which was miraculous. 

"How about the cubiculums? If I am to live like a proper Roman matron with my very esteemed guest Rufus, then we should dress like we belong, hmm?" Before she could be stopped, she had skittered from Rufus and made her way along a corridor to a cubicula, blinking and coughing into the dust. She knelt down to fling open a chest, laying at the foot of the bed, trying to find a palla or something to throw on. She wanted to get Rufus into the light hearted mood she lived her life by. 

 

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"I think this is smaller - I mean, he lives on the Palatine, being who he is." Rufus, despite being a slave, was still the slave of a member of the Imperial family, which put him both below Didia Nonia as a slave and above her as a member of an elite household. Which was, quite frankly, a bizarre position to be in.

He followed her, ducking under the low lintel without even thinking about it. "It's still a very nice house - very high class, probably a senator's," he said, looking around. He was a little fearful in case they were discovered - but the thickness of the dust on everything, and the swallow's nest under the peristyle, was proof that nobody had come here for years.

"They left everything behind?" He couldn't help wondering who 'they' might have been, and what had happened to them, but he wasn't going to speculate aloud and spoil Didia's light-hearted, carefree curiosity, and her playfulness.

She had vanished into one of the cubicula and flung open a chest that was in there, making Rufus cough with the dust that rose. They really had left everything, it seemed, as he watched her rummage.

"How did you find this place? And find your way in?" he asked, watching her from just inside the doorway.

 

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Didia nodded as she rummaged, "I wonder who they were." She mused aloud - echoing Rufus' own thoughts perfectly. "Probably some fancy nobles who lost all their money and they never worked out what to do with this place." Finders keepers was very much her belief system and so as she rummaged and successfully extracted a vibrant pink palla, she grinned to herself. Beading edged the gauzy fabric and before Rufus could stop her she'd wound it round herself. She owned such garments herself of course, she wasn't a slave after all, but nothing of this quality and she rarely wore it unless it was a festival or they were going somewhere respectable

"And how does domina look?" She chuckled, obviously mocking as the beaded edge glistened in the stray shafts of light and the fabric moved around her, tangled over her arm. 

"I can't remember now," She said with a frown and backed out of the room with a satisfied smile to Rufus, gesturing for him to follow her into the next cubicula down the corridor, "Some awful way probably - I wasn't always so responsible. It might have been a boy, actually." She frowned again and slowly nodded, that sounded right. "It was, I think, one of the neighbourhood lot found it and took me and a friend here to show us a good time." She snorted in amusement, "Not that he got it, of course. I was a bit responsible, even back then." She chuckled and flung open a chest in the next cubicula, speaking over her shoulder to Rufus; "The lady needs her man dressed in a toga if he's going to enjoy a tour of her domus," She grinned as she extracted an enormous unwieldy piece of cloth. "Although...she has absolutely no idea how to put it on her guest." 

 

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"Well, I've never put one on, though I've helped plenty of times," Rufus said. He had misgivings about the whole thing, but there were only the two of them here and if they kept their voices down, nobody else would be any the wiser about their presence. 

"It's awfully unwieldy if you've never done it - would a pallium be better, perhaps?" A pallium would certainly be easier to cope with from the wearer's perspective, anyway; Rufus had less than no clue how to actually wear and walk in a toga. He supposed that was something he'd learn after his manumission, if he ever got that.

 

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Didia frowned at him. "Pallium?" She didn't know what it was, she'd only ever seen her father or brothers dressed smartly once and that was for the funerary rites of her Uncle. She couldn't even remember them dressing up for her wedding, come to think of it. Evidently what she was holding wasn't a pallium though and she chuckled and chucked down the unwieldy white cloth, rummaging around the neatly folded stacks until she extracted something lighter. It was blue and half-moth eaten but still serviceable. Fancy

She wouldn't take no for an answer this time and stood up and approached him. "Right..." She glanced between herself, the cloth and him. Not only was Rufus a good deal taller than her, but she also had absolutely no idea where to start with any of this. With a sly grin, she set about hoisting it over one of his shoulders and then wrapping him up like a baby in swaddling, walking circles around him to do so. She was teasing him, obviously, and remarked with a grin. "Like this?" 

 

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"Um! Could I have my arms back, please?" Rufus asked, his grin audible in his voice. "Bit hard to do anything handy when swaddled like a baby, after all!" 

He had next to no clue how citizens managed to walk without getting their legs tangled. And as for actually doing anything...! It was hardly surprising that they had slave to do all the work, because they couldn't do a damn thing themselves all dressed up like this.

He was going to be in so much trouble if anyone found him parading around dressed like a citizen! He reassured himself that the house had lain undisturbed for a very long time, as shown by the thickness of the dust that lay everywhere. The only footprints visible were his own and Didia's.

"You must have seen citizens wearing these," he said, shrugging out of it and trying to arrange it in a more normal way - which wasn't very easy considering that he'd only ever seen them worn and didn't have a mirror to help.

 

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She grinned teasingly at him before slowly walking the other way to free his arms, rolling her eyes and tutting as she did. "You're a killjoy, you know that Rufus?" She arched a brow, obviously joking and then nodded; "Plenty. I don't just speak to red-headed ruffian's like you, you know." She chuckled, "All sorts come to our stall in the afternoon. I had the madame of a brothel the other day!" She grinned. That had been an exciting story to tell her family, and she distinctly saw a glimmer of disappointment in her fathers eye, that he'd not been the one there to take the custom and ask probing questions. He would have liked that, no doubt.

"Now," She smiled, "We're dressed properly in our domus, lets go hunting for treasure." She wiggled her eyebrows and gestured for Rufus to follow her. 

Every few moments she had to clear her throat from the dust, and she let a sneeze out every so often. The perfectionist in her wanted to give the place a thorough sweep, but she decided against it. "Do you think there's laws?" She asked and glanced over her shoulder at him - jerking her head to let him know in a discrete way that he didn't need to walk behind her, "Laws of finders-keepers? So I can claim all this as mine and live in it for free?" 

 

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"I don't know. It would be nice if there were, though, I think it would suit you to be the materfamilias in a posh house like this," Rufus said. He could imagine it - and Didia Nonia would be a far more benevolent mistress than a great many patrician ladies. 

He could not imagine himself in the equivalent role, though. Perhaps a freedman living in a room in some run-down insula somewhere in the Subura, toiling away at...  something or other during the day.

And the dream of freedom was not as farfetched as it might once have been; he knew that Octavius Flavius Alexander was known to free slaves. He could not imagine that Didia Nonia would still be unmarried when he was freed, though, and dismissed that five-minute fantasy with a grin.

"I don't suppose that there are many treasures left, after so long," he said. Surely the family whose house it was would have taken their portable valuables with them?

 

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Didia arched a brow up at him, "There's always treasure, Rufus." She tutted but the smile on her lips spoke of her joking. "Rich people don't know what's treasure and what isn't. They'll see a perfectly decent, fancy, usable couch and throw it away because the colour is slightly too dark for this season," She rolled her eyes. She really didn't know if that was accurate - but she supposed it was, seeing how much free furniture the family had gotten from the dumped belongings of the rich on the pavements at night, "They have more money than sense, I'd wager." 

She glanced through the dusty domus; doors had been left open, furniture in the same positions they had been when somebody last sat on them or placed a wine cup to rest. It was all slightly unnerving, but when she was a child she had found it so exciting! Maybe it was the feeling of dread, that whatever had happened to this family had happened so suddenly that they hadn't even had the time to rinse out a wine goblet. She shuddered and tugged the palla tighter around herself. 

"If you were rich and had to leave Rome in a hurry, and couldn't take all your nice things with you, where would you hide them?" She pondered out loud. She hadn't come in here with the desire to take anything, but intrigue had gotten the better of her and now she couldn't shake the feeling that there was something here for them to both discover.

 

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Rufus wasn't entirely sure where he'd hide his valuables - in a space understood to be his, probably. So for a family, that meant probably "The lararium? Only, I'd rather not disturb the household Lares. The master would take his genius with him, of course. Where would you hide your most precious things, though?"

It was very dusty and had obviously sat undisturbed by any human for a very long time. If there was some sort of right of claim or something, he would like Didia to have a shot at it - though of course she'd have to have someone represent her in the courts to make her case. He knew that much, at least.

"He might have buried something in the garden, I suppose."

 

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"Mhmm." She nodded sagely, "I don't want to be messing about with that." She chuckled and moved out through the tablinum, pausing to look at the great stone desk that sat undisturbed. Despite a layer of grime and dust that covered the surface, everything was still in its place. Neat stacks of papers were to the right, a cup of what was probably long dried wine to the left and a slew of wax tablets. 

She glanced over her shoulder at Rufus, "Can you read?" She couldn't - not really. She knew a few letters, and how to make a mark (important for taking deliveries) but that was about it. What point was there in her learning to read? She presumed slaves similarly didn't have the need to learn, but then Rufus was the slave of an important man. With narrowed eyes, she took a paper from the stack and held it out to him, moving to turn around and jump up to sit on the desk, her legs swinging. "What does it say?" 

 

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"I can read," Rufus said, a little surprised that Didia couldn't - surely the grammaticus was cheap enough even for a plebeian? Although fewer girls went to school than boys, and maybe Didia's father hadn't wanted his daughter to go, or hadn't had enough money for her as well as her brothers to be educated?

"To Gaius Rufidius Crispus, from his good friend Julius Junius Marcellus, greetings," he read, tilting the scroll towards the light to see better. "It's a letter," he added unnecessarily, looking up, feeling a little creeped out at reading the personal correspondence of a presumably long-dead man.  "Surely you can read?" he asked, giving voice to his thought of a moment before.

 

@Sara (sorry for the delay!)

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She arched a brow as he started. Such fancy names, these rich people had! But his question made her frown and she stopped herself from snapping back. Unlike others, he surely didn't mean it in malice, but it was hardly a polite question to ask - especially phrased so...bluntly. 

She quirked one eyebrow up at him and shook her head. "Nope. A few letters, and I know how to make a mark, but that's it." She shrugged and defensively folded her arms across her chest. She was generally a light-hearted person, and one very difficult to make morose or annoyed, but little things got under her skin and Rufus had accidentally stumbled onto one of her sore spots. 

"We came to Rome when I was a girl, and spent most of our money on the move...what was the point in paying somebody to teach me to read?" She arched a brow, "Why does a fruit-seller need to know her letters?" 

 

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"Ah - apologies," Rufus said, and gently tugged at her wrist until he'd pulled her hand free, before tapping her palm against his cheek, suggestive of a slap. "There, I am properly chastised for discomfiting you, Lady," he said.

He took a breath. "I could teach you, if you wanted to learn," he offered quietly. "I mean, I'm not a proper grammaticus or anything, but I wouldn't tell anyone, and you might find it useful later?"

There were all sorts of reasons for people to know their letters, after all, it didn't matter what station in life they held. At least he hadn't blurted the question out anywhere that others might have overheard it, so there was that.

 

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Didia tried to maintain her annoyance with a glare in his direction, but her resolve broke and she chuckled as he mimed a slap on his face. She kept her hand there, against his cheek, for a moment too long as her thumb brushed his jawline before she withdrew it and settled it in her lap. Idiot girl! 

She batted away such idle thoughts as she listened to his offer. She quirked a brow and leant back on the desk. "Do you have the time?" She asked, genuinely interested. "I suspect I'll be a slow learner, nobody's ever told me I'm smart." She chuckled. She was fine with that, she wasn't dim, and she was happy. Who needed to be the smartest woman in the Empire? "And besides," She said with a little pout, "What's the point in me learning anyway? I'm not some lady that can spend hours of her time reading and things, and in any case...that sounds terribly boring." 

 

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There was something electric that sparked in Rufus as Didia kept her hand to his face for a moment too long, stroking his jawline with her thumb before she remembered who they were and where they were.

"Depends what you find to read," Rufus pointed out. "Of course there are plenty of boring things out there, but there's a lot that isn't, too. And if you can read, you'll know what you're putting your mark to without having to trust that you're being told the truth. And Latin's an easy enough language to learn, anyway. You can talk it well enough, reading it isn't much harder, not really." He shrugged. "It's practise, more than anything, once you've been told what the letters are and how they sound, and you don't need me or anyone else for that bit. There's enough writing all over the walls in Rome that you can practise reading when you're doing your deliveries, if you don't mind reading some truly dirty graffiti."

Maybe he could set up as a grammaticus once he was freed? Though somehow the idea of teaching kids didn't seem as appealing as teaching Didia Nonia - and he'd stumbled into teaching that other kid, Azarion, more by luck than anything. He couldn't help wondering where he'd landed up, and hoped it was somewhere good.

"It'd make up for me making you drop your lunch," he added after a moment.

 

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Didia chuckled. "Pater will be happy, it'll stop me signing away the rights to our business I suppose." She was joking, of course, she knew she didn't have the authority to do that as a woman anyway. How depressing. "And you know, that's very true. I often get the gist of it from the...delightful drawings on our cities walls, but can never tell who they refer to. Maybe that could be my new career? Branch out of the family business and become a professional graffiti artist?" 

She swung her legs back and forward from the table as her hand wandered, leafing through papers absently. She raised it, and shook it as he insisted on repaying her lunch. "Stop! It's fine," She chuckled, "We'll go to a thermopolium after." She grinned. They still had plenty of exploring to do first though and she slipped off the table, squeezing past  him and trying not to blush as she did. 

She called over her shoulder as she walked from the tablinum into the garden, blinking around at the overgrown garden. "And when would you have time to teach me? Wouldn't your dominus care?" 

 

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